Thursday, January 15, 2009

Weak Spots in the Story Fabric

So clearly one of the things my muse* is wanting to do this week is READ! And not much else. And I'm very much okay with that because I feel like I only read three books last year that weren't for research. Also, when I'm in the throes of writing a book I become the finickiest reader on the planet. If a book doesn't feed my current project, my muse wants nothing to do with it. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to pick up a book four different times, unable to get into it, then the fifth time I picked it up, devoured it in one sitting. (And I have to say, it's highly annoying not to be able to trust your own taste sometimes.) But I digress.

One of the truly great things about immersing myself in (other people's) fiction is that certain patterns begin to emerge and it makes it easier to get a handle on some things. One thing I've been noticing a ton in the last week is certain times that are automatically structural weak spots in a book, places where it is oh-so-easy to break that fine thread that connects the reader to the story: POV shifts and jumping around in time. (There is actually a third scenario where the connection lags, but I'll talk about that in a separate post.)

This is something I've know on an academic level, but because I've been on a reading binge, it is so obvious to me where my attention starts to wander. Time shifts seem especially lethal, especially when those shifts are not in a linear fashion. The truth is, in spite of the brilliance that was The Time Traveller's Wife, for most of us, time is linear and it becomes very difficult to track with constant flashbacks and visits back in time. Those are the moments I'm most likely to set the book aside.

So this has me thinking a lot about the craft choices we make. How each thing we use gains us something, but also brings it's own set of negatives along with it, and for me at least, one of the tricks of writing is analyzing if what I gain is worth what I've lost. And I have to say that for me, I am not seeing that many scenarios where time shifts add enough to the book to make up for the connection lost. For that's what's at stake; the reader's connection to the story, to that character and that conflict and that build in dramatic tension. And if you jump back three years, all of a sudden you've broken that connection, that anchor line, and now the reader is floundering.

There are two exceptions to the above. The first, and most commonly used and easily tolerated, is having the book open at a dramatic point in time, then moving forward a few years, such as in a prologue. That most often totally works for me. The second exception is if the author has raised such a compelling dramatic question about the character's past, that the reader is salivating to know what happened. I think then, since the author is answering a question the reader wants desperately to know, it can work without losing that connection. An example of this is BROKEN FOR YOU, which I blogged about a few days ago. We are so curious about these womens' past lives, that when the author breaks away to fill us in, it is a relief.

Now POV shifts are harder. Many many books have multiple POVs, and when they're done right, having those different viewpoints adds so much to a book. But time after time I see POV shifts that just annoy the ever-loving spit out of me because they are tearing me away from the character I'm totally absorbed in and plopping me down in another person's head, for whom I have no connection at the moment.

Again, I think the answer here is to build to it. While we're in Character A's POV, have the action of the book and the dramatic tension build in such a way that the reader is dying to see what Character B is thinking/feeling. That way when the switch is made, it's satisfying a reader's desire to know more, rather than pulling them away from what they're absorbed in.

Of course, all this is based on my own reader taste and preferences. I'd love to hear anyone else's thoughts on this subject.

*I want you all to know that I use the term Muse with my tongue firmly in my cheek. It's just that I am fascinated by how my subconscious works, and it amuses me to think of it as separate from me, even though I know that it is not.